“[GONZO] is a style of reporting,” Hunter S Thompson once said, “based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than journalism. […] My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication – without editing. That way, I felt, the eye and mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective and necessarily interpretive – but once the image was written, the words would be final.”
Thompson wrote this in 1979—eight years after his popularized gonzo manifesto, “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” hit the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971. Eight years had changed a lot. Thompson was still both the drug-addled patron saint of Gonzo journalism and its one true follower, but Nixon had been impeached, Saigon had fallen, and the haze of the 1960s counterculture had come into sharp relief against the nihilism of the late 1970s.
“Gonzo” lived and died with Thompson—one could say it blew its brains out in 2005, when at 67, the ill-famed journalist put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. “As the chief and only true gonzo,” said Newsweek, “[Thompson] wasn’t just a passive observer but played his own freaked-out part as unofficial Tom O’Bedlam to the events he covered.” Without him, the ethos of the style as he conceived it has faded from contemporary journalism, appearing at best as tribute and at worst as mimicry.
“Most of them seem to think it’s easy,” said Thompson’s former editor Alan Rinzer, “that writing gonzo is a license to knock off any silly, intoxicated, first draft prose.”
The style falls in the gray void between journalism and novelization, pulling from each while simultaneously being at odds with both. Gonzo lays hyper-subjectivity over journalistic immediacy, applies fictive techniques to true events, and does it all without taking a step back, like trying to identify the big picture with only a close-up to examine. To do this, Thompson asserts, one needs “the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer, and the heavy balls of an actor.” He further demands physical participation on the part of the writer, likening the task to being a film director who must also write, shoot, and perform his own scripts.
A fervid admirer of novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Thompson falls into a different category of writer with Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and other narrative-journalists of the mid 20th century. While the term “New Journalism” has had many incarnations throughout the course of history, this particular movement refers to a shift in certain forms of journalistic commentary, notably the use of literary devices in the reportage of factual events. The bulk of these writers were novelists, and their work was not beat coverage but prominent “features” that allowed for subjectivity and speculative characterization in a way traditional reporting did not. “They had literary ambitions,” said Ronald Weber in a 1976 review of Wolfe’s anthology, The New Journalism. “They wanted to lift the art of modest feature-story journalism to high art.”
In fact, Norman Mailer insisted, despite his prolific involvement with Esquire, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair, that he “has never worked as a journalist and dislikes the profession.”
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.